Decider is a website devoted to entertainment available via streaming.
Full disclosure: Decider belongs to the same company that owns the publication where I work by day.
But True Crime Truant is funded, operated, and written by me at home with my dog on my lap, no connection to my employer (except that my colleagues and I like to read one another’s blogs. You can check out Running for Your Life by marathon runner Larry O’Connor or Total Game Plan by girls volleyball coach Mike Tully).
But getting back to Netflix, you’ll find one disadvantage to watching Forensic Files there: The only reader comments are reviews that pertain to the series as a whole, not specific episodes.
You might miss the “I hope the mother’s supervisor rots in hell” and “I knew he was a lying weasel from the 911 call” comments. I rather enjoy them. You can always go back and forth from Netflix to YouTube.
Next week, True Crime Truant will resume recaps of Forensic Files episodes, with “House Calls,” which tells the story of how pediatrician Louis Davidson met his end at the hands of his wife and some hired assassins.
Her Husband Fooled Everyone at First
(“Writer’s Block,” Forensic Files)
If the story of Nancy Dillard Lyon’s death sounds a little familiar, it’s because her husband chose to kill her via poisoning, the same method used by Dr. Anthony Pignataro, the subject of a recent blog post.
Pignataro, an egomaniacal underqualified plastic surgeon, failed in his efforts. Debbie Pignataro survived the doses of arsenic the doctor slipped into her food and lived to see him imprisoned.
No showboat. Nancy Dillard Lyon wasn’t so lucky. The architect died on January 14, 1991 after her husband, Richard, sneaked harmful chemicals — one of them arsenic — into her comestibles over a long stretch of time.
He almost got away with it.
Unlike the narcissistic Pignatoro, Lyon was an outwardly modest man respected in his profession and in his community in Dallas, Texas.
The 34-year-old father of two managed to evade suspicion until after his wife died.
And even then, he supplied his defense attorneys with an armory’s worth of hard-to-refute evidence.
Media binge. But the criminal justice system nailed Lyon, who had an Ivy League degree, just the same. It’s always refreshing to see investigators untangle a plot concocted by someone sure he can outsmart them.
The story became the subject of not only the Forensic Files episode “Writer’s Block” but also an hour-long Dominick Dunne’s Power, Privilege, and Justice entitled “Traces of Evil” and a made-for-TV movie called Death in Small Doses starring Tess Harper, Richard Thomas, and Glynnis O’Connor.
Upcoming posts will offer a recap of “Writer’s Block” along with some other research about the case as well as an epilogue for Richard Lyon, who is 60 years old and still among the living.
Or Maybe a Railroaded Victim
(“Chief Suspect,” Forensic Files)
This week, it’s back to Forensic Files with one of the more perplexing episodes in the series.
The evidence used to convict Jim Barton for his alleged role in a home invasion that left his wife dead seemed a little shaky. And unlike other accused Forensic Files spouse killers, Barton was something of a sympathetic character.
While his alleged crime was highly inadvisable, it didn’t carry much in the way of malice — if he really did it, that is. A jury thought so, and convicted him in 2005.
Eye on the prize. I checked into an epilogue for the 6-foot-5-inch former lawman, but first here’s a recap of the episode, “Chief Suspect,” along with additional information from internet research and insights from YouTube commenters.
Jim Barton was a well-liked lieutenant with the Springboro, Ohio, police department. His wife, Vickie, worked as a nurse supervisor at Sycamore Hospital.
The couple met through their love of riding and lived on a horse farm called Locust Knoll in Franklin Township, outside of Springboro. By all reports, Jim and Vickie had a happy marriage.
By the time he was around 40, Jim allegedly was aiming to win the top job of police chief, but that position would usually go to someone who resided within the city limits.
Horrific scene. On April 11, 1995, he called 911 to report finding his wife on the floor. She was undressed, not breathing, and had three bullet wounds to the head from a .22 caliber.
Someone had ransacked the household’s gun collection but didn’t steal anything.
The crime shocked the small community, and police geared up for a thorough investigation. But they found no suspects and no helpful evidence.
The case went cold for a few years, until police arrested a local career criminal named Gary Henson over an unrelated burglary. Henson said he knew something about the Vickie Barton homicide.
Suicide adds intrigue. His half-brother, William Phelps, was paid $3,000 by Jim Barton to rob his home in order to scare Vickie so that she’d agree to move away from their rural property and into the city of Springboro, Henson contended.
But Phelps went off the rails and raped and murdered Vickie, said Henson, who also told police that the original plan was for Henson himself to go along on the robbery but that he was in jail then.
Phelps committed suicide just weeks after the murder. (Henson later changed his story, testifying that Phelps had an accomplice, and the accomplice was the one who assaulted and killed Vickie.)
The revelations were more than enough reason for a cold case squad to reopen the investigation in 2003.
Detectives listened to Jim Barton’s 911 tape for any hints pertaining to a robbery-for-hire, and came up with a lot of what it considered red flags.
Tale of the tape. First, the detectives noted that Barton referred to the killers in the plural, evidence that he knew that two people committed the crime, they theorized. But as a YouTube commenter noted:
Susan Adams7 months ago “They” could be said because you don’t know if the person who committed the crime was man, woman, one person or several. Saying “they” shouldn’t have [raised] red flags.
Detectives also interpreted noise on the tape as the sounds of Barton moving objects around, possibly tampering with evidence.
But the offending noise, which the episode broadcast, sounded rather nonspecific. It could have been the house’s HVAC system or a breeze through a window.
In an interview for “Scared to Death,” a 20/20 episode about the Barton case, Jim Barton said that he looked around the house in case an assailant was still on the scene. Perhaps that accounted for some of the noise on the 911 tape.
Jumping to conclusions. Also, the theory about the attack as a scare tactic seemed a little far-fetched.
Before voting for conviction, I’d want to hear something along the lines of a secret recording of Barton admitting to the crime. No evidence like that existed. As another commenter wrote:
Sam Rod1 year ago (edited) “hmm, the evidence was terrible in convicting this guy. this was a long reach for the prosecution.“
And on the subject of long reaches, one of the prosecution’s witnesses (presumably Henson) was hypnotized in order to extract information from him, said Barton defense lawyer Jon Paul Rion.
According to the 20/20 episode, in his earliest police interviews, Henson didn’t mention a robbery-for-hire plan; he added that part of the story later.
Henson sounded like a none-too-reliable witness all in all.
A CBS story published on truthinjustice.com reported that Vickie’s friends considered the frighten-into-relocating theory a stretch as well: “It would have challenged her to be more aggressive in protecting their farm,” Vickie’s girlfriend Darlene Bisgaard told CBS.
Here’s the part that really made me lose respect for the methodology of the investigation.
Hokey experiment. On the 911 tape, Barton said, “I gotta call [unintelligible word that sounded like ‘felp’], man.” Prosecutors asserted the garbled word was “Phelps” — thereby proving that Barton was in cahoots with Henson’s half-brother, William Phelps.
Barton maintained that he said “help” as in “I gotta call for help.”
To prove otherwise, the prosecution brought in Robert Fox, an Ohio State University linguistic and acoustic-phonic expert.
“To eliminate any potential bias,” narrator Peter Thomas explained, the professor was given only two choices: Was the word “help” or “Phelps”?
But why even give him suggestions? They should have simply let him interpret the word in question instead of prejudicing him.
Fox concluded that Barton said “Phelps” despite what seemed like a lack of a final “s” sound on the tape.
Failed second marriage. And there were other weak revelations as well. Barton’s second wife, Mary Ann Lacy, said that he sometimes spent time alone in their darkened basement, which investigators translated into evidence of guilt.
But Barton had married Lacy, who was Vickie’s best friend, only 15 months after the murder, and he may have still had sorrow to process. It didn’t make him guilty of anything. Or as an online commenter put it:
Dan Kirchner1 year ago (edited) “so the 2nd wife dumped him for spending alone time in the basement?? wtf? its called a mancave these days, right?”
Another piece of new evidence the prosecutors seized upon: A waitress named Barb Palmer suddenly remembered that, 10 years earlier, she had seen Jim Barton and William Phelps eating together at a local diner called Mom’s Restaurant.
Unless they left her a $100 tip, how could she possibly recall them after all that time?
DNA taken from the crime scene didn’t match that of Gary Henson or William Phelps (authorities exhumed his body to get a sample).
Credit undeserved. But members of the jury apparently harbored few doubts. They convicted Barton of complicity to commit manslaughter. On April 15, 2005, he received a sentence of 15 to 50 years at the Southeastern Correctional Institution in Lancaster.
“Had it not been for the forensic analysis of Jim’s 911 call, the case might never have been solved,” narrator Peter Thomas concludes. But as another commenter noted:
Babalwa Brook2 years ago “I love how they are crediting forensics for solving this case when it clearly was the informant who brought up Phelps and the waitress who confirmed that dude knew Phelps smh”
The Forensic Files episode left off in 2006, but more has happened since then.
Barton wins a round. In 2015, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that authorities improperly withheld evidence about a break-in that happened in another rural home in Warren County, where the Bartons lived.
The panel of judges also said that the state’s case hinged on “unsupported, shifting and somewhat fantastical” witness testimony (presumably referring to Henson’s assertions).
In March 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to reinstate Barton’s conviction, meaning Ohio authorities would have to give him a second trial or set him free.
The following month, Jim’s third wife, Elaine Geswein Barton, put up $350,000 in bail, and he exited prison.
In September 2016, Barton avoided a new trial by entering an Alford plea, whereby the accused maintains his innocence while admitting that enough evidence exists to convict him.
Who knows? Of course, maybe Barton really did cause his wife’s death via the Fargo-like plot that Henson related. The time Barton served behind razor wire seems like adequate punishment for a crime of that nature.
From the evidence shown on Forensic Files and detailed in newspaper stories, however, his chance of being guilty seems around 50 percent. As a juror, I’d want to be 99 percent sure before convicting.
That’s all for this post. Until next week, cheers. — RR
A Nice Woman Marries a Bad Hombre
(“All The World’s a Stage,” Forensic Files)
On the outrageous meter, Ted MacArthur’s explanation for his wife’s death would pretty much make the needle fly out of the machine.
A detective for the Miami-Dade police force, MacArthur, 38, told the authorities that just for fun, he woke up Pilar MacArthur by squirting her with a water gun on the morning of August 1, 1989.
Sympathetic victim. That’s the relatively believable part. Here’s where he really pushed it. He said that Pilar, who was a corrections officer with firearms training, reacted by playfully putting a real gun up to her own head and pulling the trigger as a joke.
Pilar, 35, thought she had unloaded the weapon, he explained, but she had mistakenly left in one bullet and given herself a fatal wound on the left side of her skull.
Putting aside the insult to our intelligence, “All the World’s a Stage” is a sad and touching episode of Forensic Files.
Pilar MacArthur’s sister, Carmen Barraford, and a good friend, Jenny Alvarez, appear on camera, and they both seem like such sweet, mild souls. But just the same, they rip apart Ted McArthur’s credibility.
European background. Alvarez said that Pilar had found out Ted was cheating on her and she was giving herself a makeover in hopes of winning back the father of her two children.
For this week, I poked around to find out where Ted MacArthur is today and whether he’s still peddling the same story that paints his late wife as reckless and foolhardy.
But first, here’s a recap of the episode plus some additional facts drawn from internet research.
Pilar Sones was born in Valencia, Spain, the daughter of a fisherman and a maid. The family moved to Paris, France, where her parents secured better-paying jobs.
Following her older sister, Pilar moved to Boston. She worked as a nanny at first.
Slippery guy. Something or other drew the dark and striking Pilar to Theodore MacArthur, then a motorcycle policeman who was living in his mother’s basement.
Pilar didn’t know that Ted was still married to his first wife, Betty Lou Williams, and had a child, according to the bookCracking Cases: The Science of Solving Crimes by Dr. Henry Lee with Thomas O’Neil.
Days after Ted’s divorce came through, he married Pilar. They moved to Miami, where she began a career with the prisons system, and he worked his way up to homicide detective.
It was in that capacity that he met and began an affair with a Miami Herald crime reporter. Their romance put a strain on the MacArthur family’s budget.
Bath ploy. At first, Pilar’s efforts to keep her marriage together seemed successful. Ted said he that was just going through a midlife crisis, claimed he broke off his affair, and offered up a lie — that he would buy Pilar a new house and new car.
It’s not clear why Pilar believed him. According to Alvarez, Pilar was concerned that Ted was already “spending money faster than they could make it.”
Another part of Ted’s atonement consisted of doing nice little things for Pilar, like the time he drew her a relaxing bath, lit candles, and placed a powered-on TV on a ledge near the tub so she could watch her favorite shows.
Once she was in the tub, he caught his foot on a wire and sent the TV plunging toward the bathwater.
Colleagues suspicious. Fortunately, Pilar wasn’t electrocuted. She accepted his excuse that it was an accident. She had no reason to believe her husband would kill her; they had two sons together.
Just a few days after that mishap, Ted called 911 to report that Pilar had shot herself by accident. As a detective, Ted surely knew an investigation would take place. But, overestimating the strength of his reputation, he thought it would be an open and shut matter.
Lead detective Donald Slovonic, however, planned to make the investigation thorough and in-depth. “Most of the people that I spoke with didn’t share a good impression of him,” Slovonic later recalled.
According to Lee’s book:
Sergeant David Rivers, one of MacArthur’s colleagues and a veteran detective with an excellent reputation, later commented, “It was unspoken, but from the first day, there were sidelong glances across the office. We knew he did it.”
The case against Ted MacArthur congealed once the forensic evidence started rolling in. Pilar had no high-velocity blood splatter on her alleged trigger hand, and her fingerprints weren’t on the gun.
Story dissolves. Lee noted that the amount and condition of Pilar’s blood on the bed contradicted Ted’s contention that he immediately moved her body to the floor to begin CPR.
A ballistics expert determined that the fatal gun wound was in the wrong place on Pilar’s head to support Ted’s story about how she shot herself — that the right-handed woman aimed at the left side of her own head.
How did an experienced homicide detective like Ted MacArthur orchestrate his own crime so poorly?
“It’s kind of like the doctor who tells his patients to give up cigarettes but smokes himself,” remarked Slovonic during an appearance on a 2016 Dr. Drew episode that looked back on the case.
Justice delayed. Or maybe it’s more like the way professional hair stylists tend to do a better job on their clients’ hair than on their own.
Whatever the case, Ted’s motivation was rather obvious: A new, $250,000 life insurance policy he took out on Pilar a few weeks before her death would bring his total payout to $470,000.
Investigators theorized Ted shot his wife while she was sleeping and then staged the scene.
The trial started four years after the shooting, on October 24, 1993. By this time, Ted’s newspaper-reporter girlfriend (I wasn’t able to confirm her name, and the Miami Herald articles from that time aren’t available online) had already moved in with him, moved out after a fight during which he allegedly threatened her with a knife, and offered to testify for the prosecution, according to Lee.
Courtside boast. Dade County assistant state attorney Susan Dannelly prosecuted the case, during which MacArthur remained notably calm. He had testified at numerous trials over his career, so perhaps his own didn’t rattle him. According to Lee:
MacArthur was supremely confident of his acquittal and even held a news conference predicting this outcome and promising legal action against his accusers.
The jury delivered its verdict on December 8, 1993, after nine hours of deliberation: guilty of first-degree murder. A round of applause broke out in the courtroom.
Ted then began his life as prisoner #123207 with the Florida Department of Corrections. But it wasn’t the last time his named surfaced in a legal action.
History of lying. In 2002, MacArthur’s dubious record came up during a battle over whether a drug-related murder conviction against a criminal named Rolando Garcia should be overturned because MacArthur had worked for the prosecution.
Miami-Dade Assistant Public Defender Christina Spaulding cited the discovery of MacArthur’s dishonesty as one reason to review the Garcia case.
A Sun Sentinel story about the Garcia case mentioned that MacArthur was known to use the phrase, “A lie is as good as the truth if someone believes it.”
In regard to his own murder conviction, MacArthur, 65, is still maintaining his innocence — and that his late wife, who spoke three languages fluently, didn’t know enough not to play with guns.
Different kind of ink. He resides in the SFRC South Unit prison in Doral. At 5’10” and 250 pounds, he is presumably finding prison fare appetizing.
According to his inmate profile, MacArthur has acquired a number of intricate tattoos, including one that says “Pilar.”
That’s all for this post. Until next week, cheers. — RR
And an Even Worse Husband
(“Bad Medicine,” Forensic Files)
The Forensic Files episode about Dr. Anthony Pignataro isn’t in heavy rotation on TV for some reason, so you may not have caught it multiple times.
But really, all one needs is a single viewing to remember it forever.
“Bad Medicine” tells of how an egotistical cosmetic surgeon accidentally kills a patient, then deliberately poisons his wife.
Overconfident. And here’s the part that’s pretty much impossible to forget.
Years before his crimes, Anthony Pignataro made a name for himself as the inventor of the snap-on toupee, which attaches to a man’s head via bolts surgically implanted in the skull.
Pignataro started losing his hair at age 23 and was his own first customer.
I’m not sure whether it was the hairpiece or not, but Pignataro thought an awful lot of himself. Once he opened his own plastic surgery facility, he didn’t see the need to hire an anesthesiologist or a qualified nurse to help him.
Those deficiencies eventually led to prison time and the loss of Pignataro’s livelihood. For this week’s post, I looked around to see what Pignataro, who was released in 2013, is doing today.
Summer love. But first, here’s a recap of the episode, along with other information culled from internet research as well as Ann Rule’s book about the case, Last Dance, Last Chance.
Deborah Rago, born in 1957, came from a financially strapped family in Williamsville, New York.
In 1978, when Debbie was working as a pharmacy technician, she met Lehigh University student Anthony Pignataro, who Rule described as almost 6 feet tall with “classic, balanced features.”
One night, they fell in love on the dance floor to the Donna Summer hit “Last Dance.”
The son of Ralph Pignataro, a respected surgeon in Buffalo, Anthony wanted to follow his father into the profession. The mainland U.S. medical schools he applied to rejected him, however, so he enrolled at the San Juan Bautista School of Medicine in Puerto Rico.
None-too-impressive. Debbie waited for him to finish, and they finally married in 1985. Within the first year, a concerned party tipped her off that Anthony was cheating on her.
She took her father’s advice to “forgive once” and decided Anthony deserved another chance.
The professionals at the hospitals where the young surgeon worked, on the other hand, didn’t think the guy merited any chance as a physician.
They figured out pretty quickly that the arrogant doctor in their midst had some scary gaps in his knowledge.
But incompetent people rarely get kicked out of their fields right away.
Pignataro eventually opened his own plastic surgery practice in the Buffalo suburb of West Seneca, New York. He made a fortune doing breast implants and other cosmetic procedures.
Moneybags. To widen his profit margin, Pignataro skimped on overhead costs. He hired a licensed practical nurse (instead of a registered nurse) and a high school student to assist him.
The Pignataros had a son and daughter by this time and lived in a big house in West Seneca. Anthony and his toupee cruised around in a red Lamborghini.
Meanwhile, he made some bad surgical mistakes. After performing an abdominoplasty on a patient named Teri LaMarti, he allegedly left her with open bleeding wounds, then yelled at her when she complained.
But back in those pre-Yelp days, word didn’t get around fast enough, and the practice continued to thrive until tragedy struck.
Utter fraud. In 1996, a 26-year-old mother of two from Depew, New York, stopped breathing during a breast augmentation operation. Pignataro’s facility didn’t have a ventilator, and Sarah Smith died.
The investigation that followed laid bare the incompetence of Anthony Pignataro for all the world to see.
It turned out that he wasn’t a board certified plastic surgeon or even a qualified plastic surgeon. He hadn’t administered Sarah Smith’s anesthetic properly. The New York state health board ended up charging him with 30 counts of professional misconduct in all.
Anthony pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide and received six months in jail, a $5,000 fine, and community service. He lost his medical license. Judge Ronald H. Tills noted that Pignataro would “never practice medicine again — anywhere in the world.”
And there wasn’t any fancy legal footwork to delay jail time. The judge had Pignataro taken directly from the court room to a prison cell, while Debbie Pignataro “sobbed in the back row,” according to a 1998 AP story.
Loyal wife. After his release, Anthony had trouble finding another job, but Debbie stood by him. His well-to-do mother, Lena Pignataro, helped out the family financially.
Anthony had another affair, and Debbie took him back again.
But soon, emotional anguish was the least of her problems.
In 1999, Debbie started feeling ill with nausea and numbness of the limbs and severe pain elsewhere. The symptoms came and went. When they were bad, she had to stay in bed.
Debbie began having memory loss and needed to use a wheelchair at times.
Anthony told her the answer was to have her gall bladder removed, but her doctors vetoed that plan; they said surgery would kill her in her weakened state.
Finally, one of her doctors did a hair test and figured out what was wrong. Debbie had consumed 29,580 milligrams of arsenic.
Convoluted idea. Anthony suggested that the family of Sarah Smith, the patient who died, was poisoning Debbie to punish him. But the arsenic was traced to some ant insecticide the good doctor had purchased himself.
He was sneaking arsenic into his wife’s food, investigators determined.
The prosecution found evidence suggesting that Anthony hoped the arsenic poisoning would cause Debbie to die during surgery so that the medical establishment would see it was normal for operations to kill people sometimes — and he would thus be absolved for Sarah Smith’s death.
Anthony Pignataro ended up pleading guilty to charges related to the arsenic poisoning. Judge Mario J. Rossetti labeled the former surgeon’s life “a charade of misrepresentation,” called him self-centered and manipulative, and said he showed “disrespect for the value of human life.”
Despite his guilty plea, Anthony at various times claimed that Debbie Pignataro poisoned herself in a suicide bid, a claim ridiculed by Erie County District Attorney Frank Sedita.
Back at it. Debbie, who appeared on Forensic Files, remarked without bitterness that a) she would never harm herself and b) her ex-husband should be forced to ingest arsenic himself.
She has also stated that her former spouse will never take responsibility for attempting to kill her.
But universal disdain and a second stint behind razor wire couldn’t crush Pignataro’s ego. Not long after his release in 2013, he returned to the Buffalo area, changed his name to Tony Haute, and opened a business called Tony Haute Cosmetique LLC.
He sold a line of skin-care creams, including a system formulated from “one’s own DNA-derived plasma.” His website referred to him as a doctor.
Log off, dude. The Erie County District Attorney subsequently opened a criminal investigation into Pignataro’s new venture, and the ex-convict ended up taking down his website, according to a 2017 Buffalo station WKBW story by Charlie Specht.
Pignataro responded to WKBW’s report by stating that he changed his name in an effort to make a new start. He apologized to his ex-wife and the Smith family, although without making any specific admissions about his guilt. Pignataro also said that he works as delivery driver.
I didn’t have any luck finding out how Debbie Pignataro is faring with the after-effects of the poisoning today. I didn’t look too hard because she already cooperated with Forensic Files and true-crime author Ann Rule and probably prefers privacy at this point.
The show stated that much of the damage to Debbie’s health is irreversible. On the bright side, the book said that she has found nice people to help her in her daily life.
Her former husband will probably reinvent himself as something or other, but let’s hope the only person he’ll ever incapacitate is himself.
That’s all for this post. Until next week, cheers. — RR
This Abomination Will Live On (“Mistaken for Dead,” Forensic Files)
With any crime that involves a lot of money and at least one commercially attractive offender, you can pretty much count on a TV movie and a book or two.
The last blog post mapped out a timeline for the murder-insurance fraud fiasco perpetrated by two entrepreneurs and a neurologist in 1988. The post before that one offered a cheat sheet listing the cast of characters.
For this week, I compiled a list of the various shows and books about the case. But first, a superquick summary of the crime for readers new to the sordid mess.
The story starts in Columbus, Ohio, where a young con man named John Hawkins and his middle-aged lover, Gene Hanson, opened a store selling colorful workout clothes in 1985. The business did so well that in a few years, they had 22 stores in Ohio and Kentucky.
But they had expanded too fast, overbought, and probably spent too much on TV commercials, which starred the nubile Hawkins decked out in the likes of a lemon-yellow tank top paired with periwinkle-blue shorts.
With the business on the edge of bankruptcy by 1988, the duo decided to fake Hanson’s death and try to cash in on his $1.5 million in life insurance.
Neurologist Richard Boggs, a recent acquaintance from California who had money problems of his own, procured a dead body — by killing an innocent man named Ellis Greene — to pass off as Hanson.
Utter disaster followed, with authorities figuring out what happened and nabbing Hanson and Dr. Boggs fairly quickly. Hawkins escaped to Europe, triggering a three-year international manhunt. Like his pals, Hawkins ended up behind bars, but he got out on parole after 20 years.
Here are some other sources of information and entertainment related to the case (in addition to Mistaken for Dead, a favorite Forensic Files episode).
Books Cheating Death by Edwin Chen. This nonfiction paperback written by the reporter who covered the crime for the Los Angeles Times got a mixed review from New York Times writer Bill Kent, who described the tome as having “brief, breathless chapters” and said its “just-the-facts style of reporting is long on information but short on analysis.” (Onyx, 1992, 320 pages.)
Insured for Murder by Robin Yocum and Catherine Candisky. Written by two Columbus Dispatch reporters who followed the case from the beginning, the nonfiction hardback contains some tantalizing details about the plot. The book got decent reviews. You can check out excerpts free online before buying. (Prometheus Books, 1993, 286 pages.)
The Dirty Nasty Truth: 18 True Crime Stories to Stop Juvenile Delinquency by John Barrett Hawkins. The former Just Sweats partner, who now counts motivational speaker as part of his reinvented self, came out with his own book that “chronicles his descent from successful entrepreneur … to convicted felon.” Amazon carries the book. (Dark Planet Publishing, 2012, 192 pages.)
TV If Looks Could Kill, a TV movie starring soap opera actor Antonio Sabato Jr. as John Hawkins and Maury Chaykin (who Entourage watchers may remember in a role as a Harvey Weinstein-like movie producer) as Dr. Richard Boggs. Produced by America’s Most Wanted in 1996, it got mediocre reviews, but it sounds like fun and you can check out the 80-minute drama for free on YouTube. (Don’t wait too long. A different link that worked just a week ago has already been taken off YouTube.)
America’s Most Wanted did a great segment about the case on its regular TV show back in 1990, when John Hawkins was still on the loose. Unfortunately, the vignette (except for a short promo) isn’t on YouTube. A couple of sources gave links to the AMW episode on Lifetime and Hulu — but they no longer work. If anyone knows of a way to watch online, please leave a clue.
Killer Couples, an Oxygen Network series, features one episode about the Just Sweats case. It includes the real John Hawkins discussing the crime on camera. There’s an interesting promo on YouTube, and you supposedly can watch the episode on the Oxygen website, although it’s not clear whether it’s free.
Blood, Lies, and Alibi, a 2012 series from the Investigation Discovery Network, devotes a Season 1 show called “Doctor of Death” to the Just Sweats murder. It features interviews with Columbus Dispatch reporter Catherine Candisky and legal authorities directly involved in the case. You can watch the episode on YouTube.
Murder by the Book, a Court TV show in which true-crime authors devote an hour to cases that intrigue them, featured the Just Sweats crime in 2006 in Episode 4 of Season 1 with writer Jonathan Kellerman. I couldn’t find any trace of the the episode on YouTube or anywhere else online, however. If anyone knows where to watch it, please share the evidence.
That’s all for this post. Until next week, cheers. — R.R.
Just Sweats Chronology
(“Mistaken for Dead,” Forensic Files)
Last week’s post provided a cheat sheet for the principal characters in a murder-insurance fraud case perpetrated by a trio of friends.
The conspirators were grown men who really should have known better: Dr. Richard Boggs, Gene Hanson, and John Hawkins.
Dr. Boggs was a California neurologist with a Harvard degree and, at one time, a good reputation and lots of money.
Ohio residents Hawkins and Hanson staked their own glory on Just Sweats, a chain of stores they opened to sell workout clothes.
Hawkins and Hanson were also lovers, although some sources suggest that the boyishly handsome Hawkins preferred women and was just using Hanson.
Once Just Sweats faltered, they should have simply filed for bankruptcy and gotten jobs selling health club memberships or real estate.
Instead, they hooked up with Dr. Boggs in California, took the life of an innocent fourth party, and ruined all their own lives.
A number of viewers who left reader comments on the YouTube webpage for “Mistaken for Dead” — the Forensic Files episode about the case — mentioned the plot of the murder-insurance fraud case was hard to follow. So a timeline seems in order.
Dr. Richard Boggs, a respected neurologist, helps create Satellite Health Systems, one of the first HMOs in the United States.
1971 to 1976
Satellite Health Systems grows spectacularly but fails to make a profit. Dr. Boggs is millions of dollars in debt.
Dr. Boggs declares bankruptcy. Friends say he is never the same afterward.
1978 Lola Boggs leaves Dr. Boggs after a marriage of more than 20 years and four children.
He moves out of the couple’s luxurious Tudor-style house in Glendale, California, and gets an apartment in West Hollywood. He begins partying with young men there.
Lola Boggs takes her ex-husband to court over $33,000 in unpaid child support.
1981 to 1988
Dr. Boggs continues to spend lavishly, buying a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith II. He incurs huge debts.
He is accused of performing unnecessary surgeries on patients. Medical organizations expel him.
At some point in the 1980s, he meets the two Just Sweats entrepreneurs from Ohio: sexy high school dropout John Hawkins and middle-aged former department-store shoe buyer Melvin Eugene “Gene” Hanson.
Hanson becomes Dr. Boggs’ patient.
Hawkins and Hanson open their first Just Sweats store, in Columbus, Ohio. It carries a large inventory of colorful exercise clothing.
The store is a huge success.
The duo open more Just Sweats for a total of 22 stores in Ohio and Kentucky. They offer such deals as Lycra bike shorts for $4.99.
Hawkins appears in TV commercials for the business and becomes “a household name across central Ohio,” according to the Columbus Dispatch.
But Hawkins and Hanson begin mismanaging the business. They start selling off the stores’ assets for cash.
At some point, the two men begin plotting a crime that will relieve them of the financial hellhole Just Sweats has become.
Hanson starts applying for life insurance. He ultimately obtains three policies totaling $1.5 million and names Hawkins sole beneficiary. The plan is to fake Hanson’s death and get their hands on the insurance money.
They invite Dr. Boggs in on their plan. His assignment: to procure a body to pass off as Hanson’s.
1988 Meanwhile, Hawkins and Hanson do a Herculean job of hiding the financial problems at Just Sweats. As a Columbus Dispatch story stated:
“Propelled by a series of seemingly ubiquitous TV commercials — all of which featured the wavy-haired, always-smiling entrepreneur — the chain’s annual sales were approaching $10 million. Would-be franchisees were lining up, and major players in the athletic-wear industry were looking to invest.”
Any prospective Just Sweats investors would require to see an audit, which Hawkins and Hanson can’t allow.
With Just Sweats sinking fast, Hawkins and Hanson get serious about an illicit plan for a way out.
Gene Hanson starts telling people that he has AIDS and is dying. Neither claim is true: Hanson is setting up a story to make his upcoming “death” believable.
April 9, 1988 Dr. Boggs makes his first attempt at acquiring a dead body by killing someone.
The would-be victim, a computer professional named Barry Pomeroy, complains to the Glendale police that Dr. Boggs tried to murder him by prodding him with an electric device after meeting him at a bar called The Spike and inviting him to his office for an EKG.
The district attorney declines to press charges because of a lack of corroboration. At least one source says authorities dismissed the incident as a lovers’ spat.
Also, Dr. Boggs retains some remnants of his former success: A detective who hears of Pomeroy’s claim notes that Dr. Boggs has an excellent reputation in town.
April 15, 1988
Another try: Dr. Boggs — and possibly Hanson as well — chat up a stranger named Ellis Greene and somehow entice him to Dr. Boggs’ office. The doctor tasers Greene and murders him by suffocation, then puts Gene Hanson’s driver’s license, credit card, and birth certificate in the dead man’s wallet.
April 16, 1988
Dr. Boggs calls 911 and says a longtime patient named Gene Hanson (who was in reality alive and well and hiding) died from a heart attack in his office; he tried CPR, but it was no use.
Paramedics note that rigor mortis already set in. Dr. Boggs claims he tried to call 911 earlier but the line was busy.
Late April 1988
John Hawkins jets to California, identifies Greene’s body as Hanson’s, and puts in a claim for $1 million of the insurance money.
At some point, Hawkins has “Gene Hanson’s body” cremated to destroy evidence.
Farmers New World Life Insurance sends Hawkins a check for $1 million.
A few days later, a case worker at the insurance company discovers Ellis Greene’s thumbprint taken at the morgue doesn’t match Gene Hanson’s thumbprint on record at the DMV.
Two other insurers deny claims filed by Hawkins.
Hawkins panics. He withdraws $400,000 from Just Sweats accounts and flees to Amsterdam. He buys a boat so he can travel freely.
Hanson also abandons Just Sweats stores, and flees separately.
Security workers at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport notice a nervous-looking man with plastic surgery scars on his face.
Suspecting he’s a drug courier, they detain the man and find he’s carrying $14,000 in cash.
Although he gives his name as either Wolfgang von Snowden or George Soule (sources vary), he has Ellis Greene’s driver’s license. He’s also carrying a Dade County library book called How to Change Your Identity.
He is Gene Hanson. Police take him into custody.
Hanson claims he paid Dr. Boggs $50,000 to supply a corpse but had nothing to do with the murder of Ellis Greene.
Smart Pants, Foolish Men
(“Mistaken for Dead,” Forensic Files)
The tale of how two sweatpants entrepreneurs and a friend used insurance fraud to bail themselves out of a financial hole was a five-star smorgasbord for any Forensic Files watcher.
The cast includes a brilliant doctor turned wicked, a two-timing male model, and a third accomplice who faked his own death and then (wait for it) got plastic surgery and hair transplants to change his identity.
“Mistaken for Dead,” the Forensic Files episode about the case, weaves a Hollywood-worthy tangled web, to be sure.
The story plays out as something of a glam precursor to the Molly and Clay Daniels debacle, except with better dental work.
Unfortunately, the sweatpants gang actually killed someone (Molly and Clay only robbed a grave).
A number of readers who commented on the “Mistaken for Dead” episode on YouTube mentioned having trouble keeping the plot and the characters straight.
So this week’s post will be a cheat sheet for the 1988 crime’s four principals:
Dr. Richard Boggs, age 55 Role: Killer and conspirator Who: Respected neurologist with a Harvard degree, a Tudor-style mansion in Glenwood, California, and an ex-wife and kids. Why: Boggs was secretly living in a financial house of cards. He needed money. Participation in crime: Lured Ellis Greene to his office, then murdered him as part of an insurance fraud plan hatched with Gene Hanson and John Hawkins.
Gene Hanson, age 46 Role: Conspirator Who: Entrepreneur who co-owned a chain of 22 Just Sweats stores in Kentucky and Ohio with his lover and business partner John Hawkins. Why: Just Sweats expanded too fast and was a financial disaster. Hanson wanted to disappear to escape responsibility for the business. He needed money. Participation in crime: Faked his own death so his cohorts could collect $1.5 million in insurance payouts to be divided among him, Boggs, Hawkins.
John Hawkins, age 25 Role: Conspirator Who: Young David Hasselhoff lookalike who co-owned Just Sweats chain. Hawkins appeared in commercials for Just Sweats before the bottom dropped out of the business. He ultimately became the object of a three-year manhunt. Why: Like Hanson, Hawkins wanted to escape the financial disaster engulfing the retail clothing chain. He needed money. Participation in crime: Served as the bagman. He was the beneficiary of Hanson’s $1.5 million in life insurance policies. After Hanson faked his own death, Hawkins flew from Ohio to California, collected $1 million from one of the policies, and vamoosed.
Ellis Greene, 32 Role: Victim Who: Friendly accountant who lived in North Hollywood, California. Why: One or two of the conspirators probably spotted Greene at a bar and realized he looked something like Hanson. Then, Dr. Boggs invited Greene to his medical office, assaulted him with a stun gun, and suffocated him. Dr. Boggs called 911 and said Greene’s dead body belonged to Hanson. That way, the three conspirators could get their hands on Hanson’s life insurance money. Participation in crime: None. He was murdered by someone he thought was a new friend.
That’s all for this week. The next post will provide a timeline of the crime. Until then, cheers. —RR
Her Dad Was No Father of the Year (“Bagging a Killer,” Forensic Files)
This week, it’s back to Forensic Files with an episode about how police used a low-concept ploy and a high-tech device to expose a murderer.
Investigators compelled Brad Jackson, who killed his 9-year-old daughter, to dance a two-step familiar to Forensic Files watchers:
1) “Officer, I have no idea what happened to (fill in name).”
2) “Your Honor, I know what happened and it’s not my fault because (fill in improbable excuse).”
Police tactics that force suspects to change their stories add some wry moments to otherwise grim tales like this one.
Taken? Jackson, 34, ended up sentenced to 56 years rather than life without parole. So, for this week, I dug around a little for an epilogue for him and some of the other parties on “Bagging a Killer,” the Forensic Files episode about the case.
But first a recap of the episode, along with additional information drawn from internet research:
On October 18, 1999, Brad Jackson dialed 911 and, in an anguished voice, said he couldn’t find his daughter.
She’d been playing outside with her dog and had disappeared, with only her backpack left behind, he said.
Troubled mom. Folks from the Jacksons’ friendly neighborhood in Spokane Valley, Washington, sprang into action by searching for the flame-haired little girl and holding vigils.
Not everyone was buying Brad Jackson’s heartsick single dad routine, though. Valiree’s uncle John Stone recalled how his sister, Roseann Pleasant, had feared Jackson.
Pleasant had vanished two years after giving birth to Valiree, her daughter with Jackson. She reportedly struggled with drug problems, which Jackson blamed for her disappearance. But Stone wasn’t so sure.
Car stash. Investigators also had some suspicions about Jackson, in relation to his daughter’s disappearance. He claimed that some blood stains on Valiree’s pillow came from a nosebleed she’d had the night before he reported her missing. But police hadn’t found any bloody tissues, wash cloths, cotton balls, etc., in the house.
After searching Jackson’s car and Ford pickup truck, investigators secretly outfitted each vehicle with a GPS transmitter — hot new gadgetry back in the day. A 1999 New York Times story about the case described it as a “high-tech version of a bloodhound.” (Prosecutor Jack Driscoll later said “GPS” stands for “God Praise Satellites.”)
Then, as Detective David Madsen explained during his interview on Forensic Files, he warned Jackson that if Valiree lay in a shallow grave somewhere, her body would be easy to find.
Jackson fell for it.
The GPS tracked his movements as he removed his daughter’s body from its original grave, then drove to another area to bury it more deeply.
Cadaver dogs found Valiree’s body buried face down on the grounds of the second of those locations, a logging region near the town of Springdale.
Shaky defense. Investigators believe Jackson suffocated Valiree in her bed, thus the blood on her pillow, then wrapped her head in a plastic bag — similar to ones found in the home that Jackson shared with his parents and Valiree — and hastily buried her. Afterward, he returned home, called 911, and started play-acting.
In the subsequent trial, Jackson’s “not my fault” contention was that he had found Valiree dead in her bed due to a Paxil overdose (more about that in a second), panicked out of fear that people wouldn’t believe him, and then buried her.
The jury didn’t buy it.
As for a motive, apparently Valiree didn’t get along with her father’s onetime girlfriend, Dannette Schroeder. Jackson allegedly felt that, with his daughter out of the way, he could rekindle things with Schroeder.
Few friends. I’m not sure how Forensic Files narrator Peter Thomas managed to read this part without throttling the living parties involved: Taking Valiree to a psychiatrist and getting her a prescription for the psychotropic drug was Schroeder’s idea. Schroeder thought it would help make the little girl easier to contend with.
Apparently, however, Schroeder had nothing to do with the murder plot. She testified for the prosecution at Jackson’s trial.
“He’s not the B.J. that I fell in love with two years ago,” Schroeder testified. “I don’t know what happened. I wasn’t there.”
Some of Jackson’s own blood relatives spoke out against him in court.
“This is hard for me to say — I honestly believe Brad deserves what he took from Valiree, and that’s a life sentence,” said his brother, Dick Jackson, as reported by the AP.
Memorial. Neighbors who fell victim to Jackson’s false alarm that an anonymous child abductor was loose in their community weren’t exactly unhappy to see him locked up either.
The Forensic Files episode closed with a view of the tree that kids from McDonald Elementary, where Valiree attended school, planted as a memorial to her. They chose a plumb tree with red leaves that reminded friends of her hair.
So where are the parties today? There’s no recent information available online about Dannette Schroeder, but the Web did turn up some intelligence on others related to the case:
• Sadly, Roseann Pleasant never turned up. Her brother said he suspected Jackson killed her and buried her in a building foundation during his stint working for Haskins Steel Co. The Charley Project, an organization that profiles missing persons, maintains a page devoted to Pleasant. (Note: Some sources spell her first name “Roseanne.”)
• John Stone, Valiree’s uncle, was the most sympathetic character appearing on the Forensic Files episode. Many online commenters expressed anger that Brad Jackson didn’t simply give custody of Valiree to Stone if he wanted her out of the way. Stone launched the Valiree Jackson Charitable Foundation which, as of 2004, was mired in some legal woes.
• As recently as 2003, Brad Jackson was attempting to get himself a new trial in a different venue. Lawyers for Jackson, who’s now 50 years old, have taken issue with the legality of the police’s GPS use. On Sept 11, 2003, the state of Washington Supreme Court denied Jackson’s motion for a new trial and reaffirmed his conviction. I had no luck finding Jackson via Washington’s inmate lookup service, although one source said he was being held out of state. On the bright side, there weren’t any stories indicating he’d won release. It’s a safe bet that this child killer still lives behind razor wire, where he can’t harm innocent people again.
That’s all for this post. Until next week, cheers. — RR